Chapter no 8

The Burning Maze

We blow up some things

You thought all the things blew up? No, we found more things

Most satyrs excel at running away.

Gleeson Hedge, however, was not most satyrs. He grabbed a barrel brush from his cart, yelled, ‘DIE!’ and charged the three-hundred-pound manager.

Even the automatons were too surprised to react, which probably saved Hedge’s life. I grabbed the satyr’s collar and dragged him backwards as the employees’ first shots went wild, a barrage of bright orange discount stickers flying over our heads.

I pulled Hedge down the aisle as he launched a fierce kick, overturning his shopping trolley at our enemies’ feet. Another discount sticker grazed my arm with the force of an angry Titaness’s slap.

‘Careful!’ Macro yelled at his men. ‘I need Apollo in one piece, not half-off!’

Gleeson clawed at the shelves, grabbed a demo-model Macro’s Self-Lighting Molotov Cocktail™ (BUY ONE, GET TWO FREE!) and tossed it at the store employees with the battle cry ‘Eat surplus!’

Macro shrieked as the Molotov cocktail landed amid Hedge’s scattered ammo boxes and, true to its advertising, burst into flames.

‘Up and over!’ Hedge tackled me around the waist. He slung me over his shoulder like a sack of footballs and scaled the shelves in an epic display of goat-climbing, leaping into the next aisle as crates of ammunition exploded behind us.

We landed in a pile of rolled-up sleeping bags.

‘Keep moving!’ Hedge yelled, as if the thought might not have occurred to me.

I scrambled after him, my ears ringing. From the aisle we’d just left, I heard bangs and screams as if Macro were running across a hot pan strewn with popcorn kernels.

I saw no sign of Grover.

When we reached the end of the aisle, a store clerk rounded the corner, his label gun raised.

‘Hi-YA!’ Hedge executed a roundhouse kick on him.

This was a notoriously difficult move. Even Ares sometimes fell and broke his tailbone when practising it in his dojo (witness the ‘Ares so lame’ video that went viral on Mount Olympus last year, and which I absolutely was not responsible for uploading).

To my surprise, Coach Hedge executed it perfectly. His hoof connected with the clerk’s face, knocking the automaton’s head clean off. The body dropped to its knees and fell forward, wires sparking in its neck.

‘Wow.’ Gleeson examined his hoof. ‘I guess that Iron Goat conditioning wax really works!’

The clerk’s decapitated body gave me flashbacks to the Indianapolis blemmyae, who lost their fake heads with great regularity, but I had no time to dwell on the terrible past when I had such a terrible present to deal with.

Behind us, Macro called, ‘Oh, what have you done now?’

The manager stood at the far end of the lane, his clothes smeared with soot, his yellow vest peppered with so many holes it looked like a smoking piece of Swiss cheese. Yet somehow – just my luck – he appeared unharmed. The second store assistant stood behind him, apparently unconcerned that his robotic head was on fire.

‘Apollo,’ Macro chided, ‘there’s no point in fighting my automatons. This is a military-surplus store. I have fifty more just like these in storage.’

I glanced at Hedge. ‘Let’s get out of here.’

‘Yeah.’ Hedge grabbed a croquet mallet from a nearby rack. ‘Fifty may be too many even for me.’

We skirted the camping tents, then zigzagged through Hockey Heaven, trying to make our way back to the store entrance. A few aisles away, Macro was shouting orders: ‘Get them! I’m not going to be forced to commit suicide again!’

‘Again?’ Hedge muttered, ducking under the arm of a hockey mannequin. ‘He worked for the emperor.’ I panted, trying to keep up. ‘Old friends. But

– wheeze – emperor didn’t trust him. Ordered his arrest – wheeze –execution.’

We stopped at the end of the aisle. Gleeson peeked around the corner for signs of hostiles.

‘So Macro committed suicide instead?’ Hedge asked. ‘What a moron. Why’s he working for this emperor again, if the guy wanted him killed?’

I wiped the sweat from my eyes. Honestly, why did mortal bodies have to sweat so much? ‘I imagine the emperor brought him back to life, gave him a second chance. Romans have strange ideas about loyalty.’

Hedge grunted. ‘Speaking of which, where’s Grover?’ ‘Halfway back to the Cistern, if he’s smart.’

Hedge frowned. ‘Nah. Can’t believe he’d do that. Well …’ He pointed ahead, where sliding glass doors led out to the parking lot. The coach’s yellow Pinto was parked tantalizingly close – which is the first time yellow, Pintos and tantalizingly have ever been used together in a sentence. ‘You ready?’

We charged the doors.

The doors did not cooperate. I slammed into one and bounced right off.

Gleeson hammered at the glass with his croquet mallet, then tried a few Chuck Norris kicks, but even his Iron-Goat-waxed hooves didn’t leave a scratch.

Behind us, Macro said, ‘Oh, dear.’

I turned, trying to suppress a whimper. The manager stood twenty feet away, under a whitewater raft that was suspended from the ceiling with a sign across its prow: BOATLOADS OF SAVINGS! I was beginning to appreciate why the emperor had ordered Macro arrested and executed. For such a big man, he was much too good at sneaking up on people.

‘Those glass doors are bombproof,’ Macro said. ‘We have some for sale this week in our fallout shelter improvement department, but I suppose that wouldn’t do you any good.’

From various aisles, more yellow-vested employees converged – a dozen identical automatons, some covered in bubble wrap as if they’d just broken out of storage. They formed a rough semicircle behind Macro.

I drew my bow. I fired a shot at Macro, but my hands shook so badly the arrow missed, embedding itself in an automaton’s bubble-wrapped forehead with a crisp pop! The robot barely seemed to notice.

‘Hmm.’ Macro grimaced. ‘You really are quite mortal, aren’t you? I guess it’s true what people say: “Never meet your gods. They’ll only disappoint you.” I just hope there’s enough of you left for the emperor’s magical friend to work with.’

‘Enough of m-me?’ I stammered. ‘M-magical friend?’

I waited for Gleeson Hedge to do something clever and heroic. Surely he had a portable bazooka in the pocket of his gym shorts. Or perhaps his coach’s whistle was magic. But Hedge looked as cornered and desperate as I felt, which wasn’t fair. Cornered and desperate was my job.

Macro cracked his knuckles. ‘It’s a shame, really. I’m much more loyal than she is, but I shouldn’t complain. Once I bring you to the emperor, I’ll be rewarded! My automatons will be given a second chance as the emperor’s

personal guard! After that, what do I care? The sorceress can take you into the maze and do her magic.’

‘H-her magic?’

Hedge hefted his croquet mallet. ‘I’ll take out as many as I can,’ he muttered to me. ‘You find another exit.’

I appreciated the sentiment. Unfortunately, I didn’t think the satyr would be able to buy me much of a head start. Also, I didn’t like the idea of returning to that kind, sleep-deprived cloud nymph, Mellie, and informing her that her husband had been killed by a squad of bubble-wrapped robots. Oh, my mortal sympathies really were getting the better of me!

‘Who is this sorceress?’ I demanded. ‘What – what does she intend to do with me?’

Macro’s smile was cold and insincere. I had used that smile myself many times in the old days, whenever some Greek town prayed to me to save them from a plague and I had to break the news: Gee, I’m sorry, but I caused that plague because I don’t like you. Have a nice day!

‘You’ll see soon enough,’ Macro promised. ‘I didn’t believe her when she said you’d walk right into our trap, but here you are. She predicted that you wouldn’t be able to resist the Burning Maze. Ah, well. Military Madness team members, kill the satyr and apprehend the former god!’

The automatons shuffled forward.

At the same moment, a blur of green, red and brown near the ceiling caught my eye – a satyr-like shape leaping from the top of the nearest aisle, swinging off a fluorescent light fixture and landing in the whitewater raft above Macro’s head.

Before I could shout Grover Underwood! the raft landed on top of Macro and his minions, burying them under a boatload of savings. Grover leaped free, a paddle in his hand, and yelled, ‘Come on!’

The confusion allowed us a few moments to flee, but with the exit doors locked we could only run deeper into the store.

‘Nice one!’ Hedge slapped Grover on the back as we raced through the camouflage department. ‘I knew you wouldn’t leave us!’

‘Yes, but there’s no nature anywhere in here,’ Grover complained. ‘No plants. No soil. No natural light. How are we supposed to fight in these conditions?’

‘Guns!’ Hedge suggested.

‘That whole part of the store is on fire,’ Grover said, ‘thanks to a Molotov cocktail and some ammo boxes.’

‘Curses!’ said the coach.

We passed a display of martial arts weapons, and Hedge’s eyes lit up. He quickly exchanged his croquet mallet for a pair of nunchaku. ‘Now we’re talking! You guys want some shurikens or a kusarigama?’‌‌

‘I want to run away,’ Grover said, shaking his boat paddle. ‘Coach, you have to stop thinking about full-frontal assaults! You have a family!’

‘Don’t you think I know that?’ Coach growled. ‘We tried settling down with the McLeans in LA. Look how well that turned out.’

I guessed there was a story there – why they had come from LA, why Hedge sounded so bitter about it – but while fleeing from enemies in a surplus store was perhaps not the best time to talk about it.

‘I suggest we find another exit,’ I said. ‘We can run away and argue about ninja weapons at the same time.’

This compromise seemed to satisfy them both.

We sped past a display of inflatable swimming pools (How were those military surplus?), then turned a corner and saw in front of us, at the far rear corner of the building, a set of double doors labelled EMPLOYEES ONLY.

Grover and Hedge charged ahead, leaving me gasping in their wake. From somewhere nearby, Macro’s voice called, ‘You can’t escape, Apollo! I’ve already called the Horse. He’ll be here any minute!’

The horse?

Why did that term send a B-major chord of terror vibrating through my bones? I searched my jumbled memories for a clear answer but came up empty.

My first thought: maybe ‘the Horse’ was a nom de guerre. Perhaps the emperor employed an evil wrestler who wore a black satin cape, shiny spandex shorts and a horse-head-shaped helmet.

My second thought: why did Macro get to call for backup when I could not? Demigod communications had been magically sabotaged for months. Phones short-circuited. Computers melted. Iris-messages and magical scrolls failed to work. Yet our enemies seemed to have no trouble texting each other messages like Apollo, my place. Where U @? Help me kill him!

It wasn’t fair.

Fair would have been me getting my immortal powers back and blasting our enemies to tiny pieces.

We burst through the EMPLOYEES ONLY doors. Inside was a storage room/loading bay filled with more bubble-wrapped automatons, all standing silent and lifeless like the crowd at one of Hestia’s housewarming parties. (She may be the goddess of the family hearth, but the lady has no clue about how to throw a party.)

Gleeson and Grover ran past the robots and began tugging at the rolling metal garage door that sealed off the loading dock.

‘Locked.’ Hedge whacked the door with his nunchaku.

I peered through the tiny plastic windows of the employee doors. Macro and his minions were barrelling in our direction. ‘Run or stay?’ I asked. ‘We’re about to be cornered again.’

‘Apollo, what have you got?’ Hedge demanded. ‘What do you mean?’

‘What’s the ace up your sleeve? I did the Molotov cocktail. Grover dropped the boat. It’s your turn. Godly fire, maybe? We could use some godly fire.’

‘I have zero godly fire up my sleeves!’

‘We stay,’ Grover decided. He tossed me his boat paddle. ‘Apollo, block those doors.’

‘But –’

‘Just keep Macro out!’ Grover must have been taking assertiveness lessons from Meg. I jumped to comply.

‘Coach,’ Grover continued, ‘can you play a song of opening for the loading-dock door?’

Hedge grunted. ‘Haven’t done one of those in years, but I’ll try. What’ll

you be doing?’

Grover studied the dormant automatons. ‘Something my friend Annabeth taught me. Hurry!’

I slipped the paddle through the door handles, then lugged over a tetherball pole and braced it against the door. Hedge began to trill a tune on his coach’s whistle – ‘The Entertainer’ by Scott Joplin. I’d never thought of the whistle as a musical instrument. Coach Hedge’s performance did nothing to change my mind.

Meanwhile Grover ripped the plastic off the nearest automaton. He rapped his knuckles against its forehead, which made a hollow clang.

‘Celestial bronze, all right,’ Grover decided. ‘This might work!’

‘What are you going to do?’ I demanded. ‘Melt them down for weapons?’ ‘No, activate them to work for us.’

‘They won’t help us! They belong to Macro!’

Speak of the praetor: Macro pushed against the doors, rattling the paddle and the tetherball-pole brace. ‘Oh, come on, Apollo! Stop being difficult!’

Grover pulled the bubble wrap off another automaton. ‘During the Battle of Manhattan,’ he said, ‘when we were fighting Kronos, Annabeth told us about an override command written into the firmware of automatons.’

‘That’s only for public statuary in Manhattan!’ I said. ‘Every god who’s any god knows that! You can’t expect these things to respond to “command sequence: Daedalus twenty-three”!’

Instantly, as in a scary episode of Doctor Who, the plastic-wrapped automatons snapped to attention and turned to face me.

‘Yes!’ Grover yelled gleefully.

I did not feel so gleeful. I’d just activated a room full of metal temp workers who were more likely to kill me than obey me. I had no idea how Annabeth Chase had figured out that the Daedalus command could be used on any automaton. Then again, she’d been able to redesign my palace on Mount

Olympus with perfect acoustics and surround-sound speakers in the bathroom, so her cleverness shouldn’t have surprised me.

Coach Hedge kept trilling Scott Joplin. The loading-bay door didn’t move. Macro and his men banged against my makeshift barricade, nearly making me lose my grip on the tetherball pole.

‘Apollo, talk to the automatons!’ Grover said. ‘They’re waiting for your

orders now. Tell them, Begin Plan Thermopylae!’

I didn’t like being reminded of Thermopylae. So many brave and attractive Spartans had died in that battle defending Greece from the Persians. But I did as I was told. ‘Begin Plan Thermopylae!’

At that moment, Macro and his twelve servants busted through the doors –snapping the paddle, knocking aside the tetherball pole and launching me into the midst of my new metal acquaintances.

Macro stumbled to a halt, six minions fanning out on either side. ‘What’s this? Apollo, you can’t activate my automatons! You haven’t paid for them! Military Madness team members, apprehend Apollo! Tear the satyrs apart! Stop that infernal whistling!’

Two things saved us from instant death. First, Macro had made the mistake of issuing too many orders at once. As any maestro can tell you, a conductor should never simultaneously order the violins to speed up, the timpani to soften, and the brass to crescendo. You will end up with a symphonic train wreck. Macro’s poor soldiers were left to decide for themselves whether they should first apprehend me, or tear apart the satyrs, or stop the whistling. (Personally, I would have gone after the whistler with extreme prejudice.)

The other thing that saved us? Rather than listening to Macro, our new temp-worker friends began executing Plan Thermopylae. They shuffled forward, linking their arms and surrounding Macro and his companions, who awkwardly tried to get around their robotic colleagues and bumped into each other in confusion. (The scene was reminding me more of a Hestia housewarming by the second.)

‘Stop this!’ Macro shrieked. ‘I order you to stop!’

This only added to the confusion. Macro’s faithful minions froze in their tracks, allowing our Daedalus-operated dudes to encircle Macro’s group.

‘No, not you!’ Macro yelled to his minions. ‘You all don’t stop! You keep fighting!’ Which did nothing to clarify the situation.

The Daedalus dudes encircled their comrades, squeezing them in a massive group hug. Despite Macro’s size and strength, he was trapped in the centre, squirming and shoving uselessly.

‘No! I can’t –!’ He spat bubble wrap from his mouth. ‘Help! The Horse can’t see me like this!’

From deep in their chests, the Daedalus dudes began to emit a hum, like engines stuck in the wrong gear. Steam rose from the seams of their necks.

I backed away, as one does when a group of robots starts to steam. ‘Grover, what exactly is Plan Thermopylae?’

The satyr gulped. ‘Er, they’re supposed to stand their ground so we can retreat.’

‘Then why are they steaming?’ I asked. ‘Also, why are they starting to glow red?’

‘Oh, dear.’ Grover chewed his lower lip. ‘They may have confused Plan Thermopylae with Plan Petersburg.’

‘Which means –?’

‘They may be about to sacrifice themselves in a fiery explosion.’ ‘Coach!’ I yelled. ‘Whistle better!’

I threw myself at the loading-bay door, working my fingers under the bottom and lifting with all my pathetic mortal strength. I whistled along with Hedge’s frantic tune. I even tap-danced a little, since that is well-known to speed up musical spells.

Behind us, Macro shrieked, ‘Hot! Hot!’

My clothes felt uncomfortably warm, as if I were sitting at the edge of a bonfire. After our experience with the wall of flames in the Labyrinth, I did not want to take my chances with a group hug/explosion in this small room.

‘Lift!’ I yelled. ‘Whistle!’

Grover joined in our desperate Joplin performance. Finally, the loading-bay door began to budge, creaking in protest as we raised it a few inches off the floor.

Macro’s shrieking became unintelligible. The humming and heat reminded me of that moment just before my sun chariot would take off, blasting into the sky in a triumph of solar power.

‘Go!’ I yelled to the satyrs. ‘Both of you, roll under!’

I thought that was quite heroic of me – though, to be honest, I half expected them to insist, Oh, no, please! Gods first!

No such courtesy. The satyrs shimmied under the door, then held it from the other side while I tried to wriggle through the gap. Alas, I found myself stymied by my own accursed love handles. In short, I got stuck.

‘Apollo, come on!’ Grover yelled. ‘I’m trying!’

‘Suck it in, boy!’ screamed the coach.

I’d never had a personal trainer before. Gods simply don’t need someone yelling at them, shaming them into working harder. And, honestly, who would want that job, knowing you could get zapped by lightning the first time you chided your client into doing an extra five push-ups?

This time, however, I was glad to be yelled at. The coach’s exhortations gave me the extra burst of motivation I needed to squeeze my flabby mortal body through the gap.

No sooner had I got to my feet than Grover yelled, ‘Dive!’

We leaped off the edge of the loading dock as the steel door – which was apparently not bombproof – exploded behind us.

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